On the morning of September 14, 1981, a Monday, an air of execution hung over British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s office.
It almost had a Godfather-like coldness of serial elimination. Michael Corleone presiding over the murders of fellow New York mafia heads Barzini, Tattaglia, Cuneo, Stracci and Greene before getting the enemies inside, Tessio and Carlo Rizzi.
The first among the "wets" — a name she gave her opponents in her own Conservative Party and Cabinet for their lack of toughness with the unions — Thatcher sacked Ian Gilmour. The grocer’s daughter then sacked Christopher Soames, a man of considerable privilege. In Thatcher’s own words, Soames “gave the distinct impression” that he was “being dismissed by his housemaid”.
Next was Mark Carlisle. Peter Thorneycroft’s removal was shown as voluntary, while James Prior was packed off to Northern Ireland.
With that Cabinet reshuffle, Thatcher indelibly etched her authority after two tentative years as the first woman to head a European nation.
The six particularly stormy months from the defiantly unpopular budget in March 1981 to the Cabinet cleansing in 1981 is tellingly captured by Conservative MP and historian Kwasi Kwarteng in his new book, Thatcher’s Trial: Six Months That Defined a Leader.
“For Thatcher, the trials of the second quarter of 1981 had been bruising and potentially career-ending,” writes Kwarteng. “As Hugo Young wrote in 1989, ‘two years after the election, she was not secured in place as part of the permanent furniture of British life’.”
She fought rising unemployment, backlash to tough budgetary decisions and events like the Toxteth riots, and bitter dissent in her own party. And yet, she emerged from crisis as one of the most enduring right-wing icons and strongest leaders in history. “She simply relied upon her own instincts and many of the truths she had learnt as a child.”
A bit of what Thatcher faced through the summer of 1981, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces in the fading light and settling chill of 2015. His electoral invincibility stands seriously challenged after the Delhi and Bihar routs. Inflation of certain crucial food items sully the shine of faster GDP growth. His government has checked big-ticket corruption but has been soft on the big-ticket corrupt.
A sustained Left-liberal campaign against what they call rising intolerance — despite no evidence in statistics — aims to slowly undermine his global credibility. Unsurprisingly, a big part of that campaign is being carried out from outside India.
But most worryingly for Modi, his famed toughness is under cloud. The Congress, with just 44 MPs in Lok Sabha and a majority in the Upper House, has been able to stall his key reforms like land acquisition and goods and services tax (GST). He seems ceding ground in Parliament and on the backfoot on the intolerance debate.
In spite of being an outsider like Thatcher, he is still reliant on the Lutyens’ establishment in his own party to deal with an openly hostile media. Journalists may queue up for selfies with the "rockstar", but small celebrations break out in newsrooms when his party loses in Delhi or Bihar.
Both these defeats had a strong whiff of dissent and sabotage from within. There are rumours, floated mainly from within the BJP, that his trusted man Amit Shah may be removed as party president. There is even talk that the ground beneath Modi’s own feet may slip if he fails to deliver on ground.
For him, 2016 has to be what 1981 was to Thatcher. He needs to reassert his complete authority in the party and the government with a no-nonsense reforms budget, a ruthless weeding of saboteurs, and forming a committed core team for the future.
The tough, uncompromising Modi has to re-emerge. Those who voted for him in 2014 had just that one man in mind.